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Alumni lecture

Thanks to a BYU education that helped him combine research with revelation, David C. Nielson has been a key contributor to the design and rollout of most of the online and media products of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the past two decades. 

Nielson shared the ways his education sparked his success and the lessons his career has taught him with an audience of  students, alumni, faculty, and staff at the annual Honored Alumni Lecture this month. This Homecoming Week event highlights a McKay School alumnus as they ‘go forth to serve.’

“I hope to share the ways I’ve applied what I learned at BYU out in the real world,” Nielson said, noting that, after getting his bachelor’s degree at BYU, he began working for the university and later moved to the headquarters of the Church, all while also earning a master’s degree and his PhD in instructional psychology and technology from the McKay School. 

Nielson has worked on many pioneering and impactful church projects, including launching Mormon Messages, Bible Videos, Meet the Mormons, the temple films, and the Mormon Channel, as well as leading the design of the member-facing platform and the missionary-focused website. He is now overseeing a complete overhaul of the Church’s General Handbook.

“As you know, much has happened during the last 22 years,” Nielson said. “In terms of design and instructional products, it’s changed significantly due to two things: one, technology has advanced quite a lot, and then there’s the global expansion of the Church.”

Nielson shared many lessons and personal stories from his career, but highlighted three main design-focused takeaways that also have spiritual and personal impacts.

Simplicity can move mountains

One day early in his tenure at church headquarters, Nielson gave a presentation to a few members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Afterwards, Apostle Boyd K. Packer called him into his office. 

“President Packer sits me down and spends about 20 minutes teaching me how to improve my presentation,” Nielson said.“It was so helpful. He had this mentoring heart.

“One of the things that really stuck with me that President Packer said was, ‘Dave, simple is hard. And if you’re going to help us, you’ve got to take complex concepts and boil them down into something that’s very concise and gets the point across.’”

Later in his lecture, Nielson affirmed President Packer's advice by sharing a quote from Steve Jobs about how simplicity “can move mountains.”

“I have found that the key to influence . . . is making things simple and clear for decision makers,” Nielson says. “Because, according to President Packer, a well-done presentation is a key to influence an organization. If you can boil things down and make it simple . . . you can get what you want. You can move people to make decisions, or give you funding, or support your effort.” 

You don’t need to have all the answers

When Nielson first began working for the Church, its leaders were interested in expanding the Church’s influence through the new frontier of the internet, but also somewhat wary. “One of the first assignments I got with the Church was when they were trying to design this new website called,” Nielson explains. 

As lead information architect for the first Church website, Nielson tackled the challenge by forming a committee made up of members from many different departments at church headquarters. 

“We got rid of all the politics and stuff, and just worked as if we were all one,” Nielson said. “That was the first time anything like that had been done, and was the result. We learned to work in a new way. . . . We learned the power of collaboration.”

Later, Nielson experienced the power of crowdsourcing while sharing the process of creating—a website for non-members to learn more about the Church.

Nielson knew the design of could be crucial to the beginning steps of its users’ conversion experiences. With Elder Neil L. Andersen in charge of the project, staff members including Nielson were sent across the country to meet with tech leaders and get their insights on the best ways to fulfill the site’s objectives. 

“We located these tech gurus from across the country who were members; people as high up as the VP of Microsoft,” Nielson said. “They gave me really great ideas that I was able to gather and bring back to the Church.

“One of the things I learned from that [experience] is that you don’t have to have all the solutions yourself. There are plenty of people, particularly in the Church network, who are willing to participate, help, and assist. If you harness that, you’re a lot stronger than trying to do it yourself in the ivory tower of the Church office building.”

Know your audience: Understand the power of localized content

Later, Nielson worked on a Christmas video produced at church headquarters and translated into Portuguese for Brazilian viewers. After a lot of paid ad placements, the video got one million views in Brazil. In reviewing the video’s analytics with Nielson, a Brazilian church leader asked if he would like to see “the other video,” created and filmed locally by Brazilian members. The total cost to produce the video—with no paid ads—was only $200, but it received 2 million views. 

Nielson asked the Brazilian members who created the video, “‘Why did you guys do this?’ They said, ‘We just wanted to create something Brazilian.’”

Nielson shared that his takeaway from this experience was that local content can be a key to producing messages that strengthen people’s faith in the Savior. “People want relevant content,” he said. “They don’t want content created in North America, translated from English, created by a North American agency. That’s just not as powerful. The Church is learning from this, and is changing.”

Recent key processes are evolving to reflect this insight, Nielsen said. A few include:

  • Simultaneous publishing of new Church content in multiple languages, so that every church member feels equally valued.
  • Producing Church products and content locally first wherever possible, skipping the translation process and allowing local leaders to help decide what is relevant to the needs of their local members.
  • Investment in personalization technology to help deliver the right message to the right person, through the right channel, as a way to help local leaders feel less overwhelmed by the “firehose” of content, programs, and instruction coming from Salt Lake.

After their initial wariness, church leaders have come to embrace the spiritual power and potential in technological advances, Nielson said, sharing a quote from Elder Ballard: “It is my judgment that much success will come as we become more expert and more able to harness the wonderful technology that our Heavenly Father has given man to proclaim His message.”

In the end, Nielson said, the success of sharing the gospel message comes down to what it always has—members sharing content that excites and inspires them. It’s just a matter of getting the right content to the right audiences, using the right platforms. 

“We need to focus our efforts. We need to simplify what we’re doing. We need to unify and not be entitled. We need to all be one in Christ,” Nielson said. “We need to increase our planning and our strategic efforts, and we have to increase our measurement, evaluation, and assessment of what we’re doing to see what’s working and what’s not.”

Writer: Eliza Terry

Photography: Kurk Fullmer

Contact: Michael Leonard